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Sunday, October 19, 2008

K42: It's a Boy!

I got a call this morning from the Western Prince office saying they had spotted orcas - did I want to come out on the trip this afternoon? Sightings really start to dwindle this time of year as the whales spend more and more time out in the open ocean, so the answer was easy: of course!! Little did I know when we left the dock what a special day it would end up being.

We met up with K-Pod (and the honorary K-Pod member this summer, L87) in Rosario Strait slowly traveling north. It was a beautiful afternoon on the water....crisp, cool fall air; calm seas; a few sun breaks here and there; and only one or two other boats on the water. We quickly spotted the tall dorsal fin of a male, and soon saw that he was traveling with a little calf. After a few viewings, we determined it was Lobo (K26) with his youngest sibling K42, a calf that was first seen in early June of this year.

K42 traveling with big brother, Lobo (K26)

We don't often know the gender of young whales for some time. While adults can be told apart by the size and shape of their dorsal fin, this sexual dimorphism doesn't become apparent until the whales hit puberty around 12 years of age, when males get what we call a "fin sprout" and start growing a taller fin. The only other way to tell genders apart is by their black and white belly markings, but as you can imagine its not too often you get a good look at their underside AND know which whale it is you're looking at. Today, though, this little calf was very rambunctious, and we soon realized we may have a chance to see its belly and figure out if it was a boy or a girl. Sure enough, as it did a backwards breach with its belly facing us, and as the camera snapped we all realized that K42 is a boy!!

K42 showing us his belly

The differences in belly markings between male and female orcas. Males have a long, narrow white marking with a single black mark in the middle indicating the genital slit. Females have a wider, rounder white marking, with three black marks in the middle indicating the genital slit and the two mammory slits (hard to see in this photo - two faint dots).

It's really a rare experience and an honor to be the first ones to figure out the gender of a new baby whale. All the population data on the Southern Resident killer whales is kept by the Center for Whale Research, the group that conducts the official census of the population, so while it won't be "official" until the Center confirms it, we all will pass our photos along so our sighting can be confirmed.

K42, who breached dozens of times throughout the course of the afternoon, left us all with a sense of optimism as we departed to head home: surely if the youngest member of this endangered population has the spunk and energy to be so playful on this October afternoon, there's hope that everything will be all right for the Southern Resident killer whales.

Adult males don't usually play as much as calves, but K42's spirited attitude must have started to rub off on his big brother. Here, Lobo (K26), on the right, rolls at the surface with his big pectoral fin in the air while little K42 completes another breach off to his left.


Michele Wassell said...

Great photos as usual! What an exciting day you must of had.. Thanks for sharing...

Vickie said...

What a delightful post. It is wonderful to see such energy and playfulness. Just because! Much enjoyed.

Anonymous said...

Incredible! Why some orcas jump and other don't?